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Minstrels looking up 

Minstrels has aced the service and atmosphere, but a better menu will get people to climb the stairs.

The restaurant business is tough---it's subjective to personal tastes, and everyone is an expert. It's doubly tough for any restaurant not located at street level. But the folks from the venerable Old Triangle have taken up the challenge---they've claimed and renovated the upstairs Spring Garden space that once housed the Thirsty Duck, calling the new venture Minstrels.

Twenty-two stairs up is a bright welcoming space. Large overstuffed chairs, two bars, lots of tables, a fireplace in the rear with the musical motif throughout. We are greeted warmly and brought upstairs to the patio far above street traffic. Plastic tables, chairs and umbrellas set the tone.

We are served promptly. The menu, auspiciously written and reasonably priced, states that some items are sourced locally, but gives no specifics. The wine list is varied, offering six-ounce or nine-ounce glasses, Canadian and popular international wines priced affordably. The domestic draught selection is predominantly Keith's and Bud Light, but two of Propeller and six imported beers are also available.

We order the French onion soup and the hummus/cucumber dill platter as appetizers, and for main courses a sirloin club with fries and Portobello mushroom burger. With one juice, one pop and one glass of wine, the meal comes to $65, tax and tip inclusive.

The soup is flatout terrible. The broth has no flavour, the cheese a cheddar slice, the bread topping soggy---it's either the wrong type of bread, or it was simply left sitting in the broth too long. The hummus is very tasty, lots of garlic, served with small warm pita rounds. The cucumber dip is also flavourful, with an abundance of dill, but has the thin consistency of salad dressing---not very enticing.

Next comes the sirloin club, nicely presented with bacon, but again with a cheddar cheese slice served on ho-hum whole wheat bread. The fries are plentiful, but small, thin and oddly tasteless.

The Portobello burger is perfectly grilled, accompanied by goat cheese and a hint of balsamic on the lettuce---all very impressive, but it served on a pedestrian bun. With all the great breads available in Halifax, this is a head-scratcher.

We return for Saturday brunch. Again we are warmly greeted and served attentively. The cheddar cheese and wild mushroom omelette is nicely prepared and presented with a side of hard-to-resist home fries, a small portion of fresh melon and strawberries and a generous portion of bacon.

The French toast is two cinnamon buns dipped and fried in egg. Disconcertingly, the cinnamon buns seem to be commercially sourced and are a little tough. The fresh-whipped cream and frozen strawberries marinated in a sweet sauce make this brunch menu designed for those who love sweet dishes.

Together with a perfectly constructed Smirnoff Bloody Caesar and a glass of orange juice, our brunch comes to $40.24, tax and tip in.

During our visit, musicians Dave MacIssac and Steve Dooks are performing. It's a nice atmosphere, and I can imagine a similar scene during the fall and winter months, with musicians and a roaring fire providing needed relief from the dreary weather. Our helpful server mentions that the menu will soon change, which is welcome news indeed---Minstrels has great potential, if the quality of the menu components, like the bread and cheese, improves. That's the difference between medium fare and good food worth climbing a set of stairs for.

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